Can Technology Arrest Global Warming?

June 28th, 2019

Earlier today, my nephew in Brussels asked me whether I thought that technology could arrest global warming. Here is the letter I wrote to him in response:

Dear Markus:

Your interest in energy is, unfortunately, shared by few.  Your question as to whether technology can arrest global warming is a good one, and the answer is probably yes, but the chances of that happening fast enough are probably close to nil, mostly for cost and political reasons.

For consumers in the developed world, their only concern is that energy (power, heat, fuel) is available when needed without inconvenience.  Just as everyone knows that “hamburger comes from stores”, we also all know that “power comes from wall plugs”.  For consumers in the less-developed world, things are far more complicated, and energy issues are far more impactive, but they consume much less energy per capita than we do.  In fact, many of them suffer from “Energy Poverty” – a lack of access to even small amounts of power for lights at night and phone charging.

Anyone who looks at recent world history in terms of energy consumption (flat per capita in OEDC countries, rising in others), in terms of fossil fuel consumption (slightly declining per capita in OEDC countries, rising in others), and in terms of integrating renewables into large-scale grid systems, realizes that governments are really not serious about arresting climate change.  The most recent BP World Energy Report is sobering; behavior change is not evident.  Everyone in Africa wants a car, can you imagine?  And in the OECD countries, we are completely unwilling to undertake any actions that might cause us to be slightly inconvenienced.

This is the first time in the history of the world where threats a generation or two away have been relatively clearly identified, but where addressing the threat means changing the behavior of the current generation.  And they don’t want to change; they want painless, magical solutions!  At no cost. 

Relying on technology to solve the issue is fine, but again, when you work through the numbers, even if a tremendous breakthrough is found in the next 10 years, there is no doubt that implementing it will take many trillions of dollars around the world in order to do it fast enough to make a large change in global warming trends.  Who will pay for it?  Will the OEDC countries pony up the cash?  While China and India are the world’s largest emitters?  If you want to rely on technology to “save the world”, you must also accept that the vast majority of people will refuse to change their life styles, they simply say:  “Don’t worry, be happy, technology will save us…!”  It is too far in the future to worry, and besides, I really like driving my Ford 250 crew-cab with doolies… 

If you, or a society, wish to reduce CO2 emissions (and CO2 is not the only GHG culprit of course; water vapour and methane are important contributors), there are very clear ways to do this, but the process of meeting the Paris COP goals is likely to be costly. Here are some things you should probably do.  

§  Build nuclear power plants as aggressively as possible.  No carbon, base load for the grid.

§  Accelerate, as an international shared project involving 200-400 billion $, development of the Thorium cycle for nuclear power.  It is not a miracle cycle, but it seems to have somewhat lower levels of radioactive wastes, it is more difficult to be “weaponized”, with somewhat lower risk of accidents.

§  Promote as aggressively as possible the development of shale gas around the world as that is the quickest way to replace and thus shut down coal-fired power plants.  Nuclear is carbon free, but implementation is far slower than gas.  Then, as the nuclear plants come on stream, we can gradually shut down the majority of the gas-fired power plants, keeping some for peaking loads and as back-up. Not only does natural gas give more than twice the power for a carbon atom, there are no particulates, no mining, no tailings ponds, and so on.  Much better overall, a good transition option. 

§  Get every nation in the world to implement a direct carbon tax (forget cap-and-trade) on the order of $100/tonne in order to fund the transition.  And do not allow this tax to escape into general revenue (as it did in BC).  It must be spent on GHG abatement. Yes, this means taxing the oil industry to implement technology to gradually replace oil.  Sounds illogical?  We tax alcohol, and use part of those taxes to advertise against drinking and in treating various alcohol-induced problems.

§  Accelerate grid-scale energy storage in all grids (AND NOT WITH BATTERIES!) as quickly as possible to increase the fraction of renewables in the system to 50% and higher by 2050.  Batteries at the scale needed will be astoundingly costly and environmentally disastrous, unless there is a “miracle battery” around the corner, but that is a bad bet.

§  Aggressively integrate grids among regions at larger scales to achieve efficiencies and allow renewable energy development to take place where the conditions are the best.  Nevada is pretty good for sun; southern Saskatchewan as well, but Prince Rupert, not so much.  The Gulf of St Lawrence is fabulous for wind, but Prairie Provinces in the winter, not nearly as good.  And for how long can you store the renewable energy?  Maybe you have to convert a lot of it to fuel (H2), because you cannot store cheap renewable power for long times economically unless you increase its energy density a great deal.  See the attached chart.    

§  Electrify the fleet as rapidly as possible.  Provide hydrogen for trucking (we can convert irregular wind power to hydrogen, and perhaps use the waste heat beneficially…).  Or convert energy into methanol which can be used in fuel cells (which themselves are expensive).  Not cheaper, but far cleaner, with greatly reduced CO2 emissions.  More pleasant cites as well.

§  Change new home building standards everywhere to insist on low energy homes – LEDs, neighborhood geothermal systems, etc.  Without exceptions.  Retrofits to older neighbourhoods and homes are expensive.  But why isn’t the R2000 standard, now 40 years old, mandated by all provinces? (Hint: the real estate sector opposes it.) 

§  Change subdivision designs for greenfield construction so that all homes also have ducting underground so that district geothermal heating can be implemented.  We already equip homes with water, sewer, gas, electricity, so why not a ducting system so that a subdivision of 20 or 50 homes, detached or high density, can benefit from more efficient energy provision?  Certainly, all residential high rises can benefit from such a system. 

§  Promote geothermal energy development and heat storage as much as possible, and it doesn’t have to be high grade geothermal, just look at what the Netherlands is doing.  Geothermal is for cooling as well, as shown by the innovative Enwave™ cooling project in Toronto for example –  There are geothermal solutions for cooling in hot climates using heat dissipation approaches and ground-source heat pumps.  We are learning how to store “cool” in the subsurface for exploitation for cooling habitats.  

§  Also, look at methane emissions in the natural gas industry and transmission systems (they all leak too much).  There are very well known means of reducing anthropogenic methane, they simply have to be insisted upon, and they will reduce human impact rates on warming.

§  Get re-elected. (Maybe the hardest of all.)

Now you know what to do, go for it. Keep costs down. Minimize social perturbations. And get re-elected!


Comments: Energy density tells you how much energy you can store in a given volume and a given mass.  Anthracite coal is almost pure carbon, with a density of about 0.9 kg/m3. Hydrogen has a lot of energy per kilogram, but it is extremely low density, so storing a lot of it is challenging (e.g. for a truck) but feasible.  Diesel fuel and gasoline are in the “sweet spot” for energy density and availability, but have carbon and particulates emissions issues.

Energy storage systems in yellow on the chart are very poor from the view of energy density, so the storage systems have to be large volume, and because the value of the total energy stored is small, they are used many times in a month to be economical.  Long-term storage is problematic, although if the repository is large enough, heat can be stored geothermally on a seasonal basis, the only large-scale energy storage system that can achieve this economically.